… As Taxi Drivers Storm Ayade’s office, Accuse Govt of Multiple Taxation
High level intrigues and controversy have trailed the newly introduced security code initiated by the Office of the State Security Adviser (SSA) for taxi / bus drivers and tricycle riders in Calabar, the Cross River State capital.
The State Security Adviser, Jude Ngaji, while fagging off the exercise few weeks ago, had said the introduction of the code was to drastically reduce security challenges especially as election period draws near, and that it would make room for easy identification of taxis by passengers in a society where vehicle numbers are difficult to grasp.
But the introduction of the code seems to have pitched senior officials of the Department of Public Transportation (DOPT), an agency of Cross River State government, against the Unified Commercial Drivers Association, a group saddled with the responsibility of implementing the new order. They are accusing each other of fraudulent practices.
Recall that about fifty placard-carrying taxi drivers had stormed Gov Ben Ayade’s office last Tuesday demanding an end to what they said was multiple levies taxi drivers were forced to pay.
SA DOPT speaks
Speaking, Special Adviser, DOPT, Mr Emmanuel Mbora, told Journalists in his office that the Unified Commercial Drivers Association was using the security code registration “to extort money from drivers.”
Mbora, who saw as illegal the collection of N2200 from drivers for the said security numbers, explained further that the said driver union flouted his order against such payment, explaining that drivers were protesting against “illegal and forceful” levies singularly imposed by the Pastor Thomas Okon-led Unified Commercial Drivers Association.
He also berated the leadership of Commercial Transport Regulatory Agency (CTRA) for allegedly supporting and conniving with the said drivers association without recourse to government’s directives against taxation of low income earners.
CTRA, Unified Commercial Drivers Union react
In his reaction, the Chairman of CTRA, Mr Mfon Bassey described the accusation as false, and denied ever conniving with any association or individual to defraud drivers. He alleged that while Mr Mbora had purportedly announced that there should be no tax/levy for drivers, the DOPT Boss had introduced two different tickets for taxi and bus operators.
“It is SA DOPT who stage-managed the protest on Tuesday. I am fully aware that he had a meeting with some members of Collation Commercial Bus / Taxi Drivers Association last Saturday to plan the protest, inciting them against complying with the State government newly introduced security number from office of the SSA,” he had alleged.
When asked why he was allowing the CTRA premises to be used for keeping vehicles impounded for not complying with the security code order if indeed he was not working with the unified association, Bassey said vehicles in CTRA premises were those which violated the agency’s regulations and not those related to the security code matter, adding that enforcers of the code have their office along Mary Slessor Avenue where they conduct their activities.
On his part, Pastor Okon denied the accusation that his association was levying drivers against government’s directives, saying his group has the mandate of fronting for government and that monies collected for the security code are regularly deposited in government bank account of which authorities are fully aware of.
He therefore directed our reporter to confirm his assertion with Mr Ethan, an official in charge of the security code in the Office of the State Security Officer. He also alleged that the DOPT leadership were selling illegal daily ticket to drivers.
Intrigues over the security code remittances
Investigation however threw up several issues over the said security code. While a senior official in the office of State Security Adviser, SSA, who did not want to be named, told our reporter that the security code is given to taxi cabs free of charge, others in the same office gave impression that some amount of money was actually being collected for that purpose.
Chairman of the drivers association, Pastor Thomas Okon explained that the Calabar-based government officially mandated his group to charge N2000 for the code but that additional N200 is added for logistic for his boys in office who assist in processing the documents. He disclosed that N2000 is actually remitted to coffers of government and that the SSA’s office could confirm the assertion.
When asked on the exact amount cabs riders were asked to pay, another official in SSA’s office, Mr Ethan, said: “that question can only be answered if I have the directive of the State Security Adviser to make a statement. I am not the one wearing the cap. I cannot make a statement when I am not directed… Those people (obviously referring to the DOPT, CTRA Bosses and the Driver Union leader) have their own tussle which has been on for some time now.”
Accusation of multiple taxation: How real?
The introduction of the security numbers, our reporter learnt, has generated bad blood between Unified Commercial Drivers Association and Tricycle Owners Association of Nigeria on one hand, the DOPT and the Collation Commercial Bus / Taxi Drivers Association on the other hand.
While Unified and the Tricycle Associations have endorsed and bought into the policy, other unions, notably Collation Commercial Bus / Taxi Drivers Association, supported by the DOPT, have vowed never to have anything to do with the payment of N2200 for the security code.
Our reporter sited a circular in which the DOPT authorities attempted to stop the collection. Drivers who protested are arguing that since taxi drivers had formally registered with CTRA with stickers carrying numbers stamped on every vehicle, there was no need for authorities to charge for any other security number.
According to them, they pay more than N1500 daily to different government agencies, including local government levies, DOPT charges and other sundry levies collected by multifarious agents of government for overloading, seat belt violations, wrong parking amongst many other ‘offences.’
While others are protesting and rejecting the code, Keke riders and Unified Association are commending SSA Jude Ngaji for the idea. Pastor, Joseph Ewa, Chairman of Tricycle Owners Association, in a chat, believed that with the security numbers, “it will be difficult to use any taxi cab or tricycle (keke napep) to rob as was before.”
Our reporter further learnt that in order to draw attention of government to the N2200 levy allegedly imposed on drivers for the security code, and to help government ascertain where the said monies were deposited, a meeting of the Collation Commercial Bus / Taxi Drivers Association was summoned last Saturday with SA, DOPT scheduled to address the group.
Some of the attendees at the meeting confirmed to our reporters that it was there that the decision to storm the Governor’s office was taken. Unconfirmed reports also have it that some DOPT officials were part of the plan with a decision to stop the said N2200 payment.
While the DOPT is expressing annoyance that the SA’s directive to stop further collection of the security code levy was not obeyed, drivers who protested are accusing the leadership of the Unified Association of conniving with some individuals to defraud them.
DOPT, revenue collection and multiple taxations
Checks also indicated that although the DOPT has taken a stand against additional levies, it may have also violated its expressed position on the monster of multiple taxation by introducing different types of tickets, outside the local government tickets which drivers buy daily.
Asked whether or not government has permitted the sale of such extra ticket, a DOPT official, who did not want his name on print, told our reporter that the Governor had actually directed SA Mbora to enforce the sale of the agency’s ticket in all the local government area of the State to generate revenue since the State internally generated revenue, IGR, has remained in all time low. This could not be verified as at press time.
But our reporter gathered that a special committee of the Cross River State House of Assembly headed by late Stephen Ukpukpem had, few months ago, delisted DOPT from the list of revenue collection agency in the State in order to drastically reduced revenue points which the masses were complaining about.
However, investigations further indicated that the Agency is selling to drivers what it calls “Daily Fee for Haulage Vehicles, Trucks/Passengers Vehicles.” While each bus is made to pay N300 as loading fee, taxis pay N200 each.
When contacted for additional explanation on the ticket matter, SA Mbora said he was out of town and could not comment.
SSA Jude Ngaji throws more light on the coding
In a telephone interview with the State Security Adviser, Jude Ngaji, he explained that it was the decision of the Security Council in the State that all commercial transport operators must be coded to stem the tide of insecurity.
However when reminded that the bone of contention was on the amount charged and not necessarily on whether or not drivers were willing to comply, the SSA said, “I have no idea whether they are being charged but my own is that the vehicles must be coded. Over 800 vehicles have already been coded; it is the bad eggs who do not want to submit their vehicles for coding. Why are they afraid?
“If they say the people handling are collecting N1000 or N2000 as the case may be, which of course is not my directives, it should not generate much furore the way it is. It is not about money collected and all that, the CTRA and those Ministry of Transports people have their continuous issues which predates the introduction of the coding. The vehicles must be coded for easy identification,” he stated as a matter of finality.
As the accusations and counter accusations continue, the questions that have been asked therefore are: with the furore generated by the payment of N2200 for the security code, why has it become difficult for the Office of the SSA to direct immediate stoppage of the collection if indeed the said collection was not directed by it? Who is actually benefiting from the funds generated from that exercise?
But, as the intrigues and stalemate continue, drivers are waiting with bated breath for Prof Ben Ayade-led government to do something tangible about the issue of alleged multiple levies on taxi drivers and other low income earners, and until that happens, the controversy would definitely continue.